The other night, I discovered a charred gash as long as my pinky finger and about as thick marring the hardcover spine of a book. The image startled me. How had The Omnivore’s Dilemma received a burn two inches long and half an inch deep, through layers of dustcover and binding, without my noticing? My glasses, which had been sitting next to the book, were also burned. One lens now oozes permanently, creating a warped spot in the lower right corner of my vision.
Did someone break into my apartment, burn my stuff with the lighter I had nearby to light candles, and leave? That seemed highly unlikely. But just to check, I tried holding the lighter to the book. It began burning a wider, messier gash than the one I had. The pinky-sized gash seems to have been made by a slower, more patient endeavor.
Had it happened while I was sleeping? Did a spark leap from the electrical outlet and ignite the book cover in a flame that went out a few minutes later? It was possible, but I would have surely smelled that or felt the heat.
Confused and unsettled, I gave up until the sun enlightened me the next morning. I picked up the book, put it down in the usual place on the night table, and noticed a bright, hot stream of light. The sun itself, with a slow and powerful presence, had reduced the work of human hands to ash and a carefully crafted pair of glasses to a fun house mirror.
It seemed fitting that such a thing would happen to a book that dedicates a great deal of time to talking about the sun and the “free lunch” it provides. In Michael Pollan’s estimation, humans would be far better off if more of them followed the example of farmers who raise grass-fed animals (or, as the farmer Pollan follows calls it, farming grass).
The idea is to let the grass soak up the sun and grow up to be tasty food, have the animals graze and poop on it, then eat the animals and/or their eggs and milk. The alternative is letting corn grow on sun and chemicals, processing the corn using polluting fuels and more chemicals, then feeding it to animals who may never have seen a blade of grass. Additional work comes in because the processed corn lacks antioxidants and generally animal-friendly elements found in grass. To round out this convoluted chain, the sun-shunning farmers must give their corn-fed critters tons of antibiotics.
We could avoid this long second scenario, Pollan concludes, if we just harnessed the free and abundant power of the sun and kept it simple. I know for sure that it’s abundant, but its power is far from simple.